Premier Li visits Malaysia as Anwar balances US-China interests

CHINESE Premier Li Qiang began a three-day visit to Malaysia late Tuesday, with Beijing looking to deepen ties with a country that has asserted its neutrality amid intensifying rivalry between the US and China. 

Li and Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim will discuss bilateral and global issues during the visit, according to Malaysia’s Foreign Ministry on Tuesday and also attend the ground breaking of the East Coast Rail Link, a 50 billion ringgit project ($10.6 billion), part of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.

Li’s arrival marks the first visit by a Chinese premier to the Southeast Asian nation since 2015. It coincides with Anwar’s efforts to maintain ties with both China and the US, while positioning Malaysia as a destination for investment from both powers. The Malaysian leader last month pledged at least 25 billion ringgit ($5.3 billion) to support its semiconductor industry, as the US-China contest shakes up global supply chains.

“We refuse to be defined by how major powers see the world. So we will continue to strive for our national and strategic interests, defined on our own terms,” Anwar said in a Facebook post on June 7. “Malaysia maintains a strong and fruitful relationship with both China and the United States.”

Malaysia has, in recent weeks, announced a slew of tech-related investment pledges from US and China, including from ByteDance, Google and Microsoft. It’s done so while having political disagreements with both countries — with China, on its expansive claims in the South China Sea and with the US on its stance on the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Malaysia and China are expected to renew a five-year economic and trade cooperation pact during Li’s visit, Trade Minister Zafrul Aziz said on Tuesday. The move would further deepen linkages between their industries in priority sectors such as high-level manufacturing and robotics, he added.

Li and Anwar will also witness the signing of several memorandum of understanding and agreements including on digital economy, green development, and the export of agriculture-related commodities to China, according to the Malaysian Foreign Ministry.

In 2023, China remained Malaysia’s largest trading partner, a position its held since 2009, with a total trade of $98.9 billion, said the Foreign Ministry. Li’s visit coincides with the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries, it added. –BLOOMBERG